The world needs power, ever more, to energize everything from electric toothbrushes to e-cars, from computers to manufacturing processes, for lights, cooling and heating. Thousands of activities and consumer gadgets, industrial processes and comfort needs require electricity: power and energy. When we talk and think about renewable energy, we tend to confuse this with free energy, drawn from the sun, the wind and the thermal heat underground, the kind of energy which is boundless and there for the taking. But like the 2nd law of thermodynamics, which states that entropy within an isolated system always increases, so is the 1st law of life which proclaims: there are no free lunches.
Energy is wildly abundant all over the universe but harnessing it and then releasing it to drive, move and energize specific tasks like motors, resistance (heat, light) and transistors is where the cost comes in. Labour, infra structure, storage and transmission. Wind and solar radiation are free but to translate them into power is an elaborate and expensive process. Water flows downhill but to hold it back and transform its energy into electricity takes massive dams, turbines, transformers and transmission lines. Burning fossil fuels, which is a finite resource and energy sink, to heat water and drive steam turbines and generators, is also costly and leaves behind planet warming pollution. Then there is nuclear power which is a relatively clean energy. That’s about it: hydro, coal, oil, wind, solar and nuclear. Which would you like to power your elevator or charge your electric car?
Since this month is the tenth anniversary of the Fukushima disaster, which turned the world away from nuclear power, this might be the time to revisit the issue. I’m relying on a recent article in the Economist here: Nuclear power has a lot of drawbacks. Its large, slowly built plants are expensive both in absolute terms and in terms of the electricity they produce. The very small but real risk of catastrophic failure requires a high level of regulation, which has a disturbing history of regulatory capture, amply demonstrated in Japan. It produces extremely long-lived and toxic waste and it is associated with the proliferation of nuclear weapons. Most of the countries outside Europe that use nuclear power have some history of attempting to develop a bomb.
It’s been 10 years since the Fukushima disaster. For the most part, however, the problem is no longer contamination. Only 2.4% of the land area of the prefecture remains off-limits to residents. 36,811 people, or 2.1% of the population, are still unable to return home. Just one worker has died from direct radiation exposure. Cancer rates in the region have not spiked. Ambient radiation in most of the prefecture is comparable with other cities in Japan and around the world. The health risks are much less acute than what was feared in the disaster’s aftermath.
In retrospect, it was the chaotic evacuation that probably harmed public health most. In Fukushima prefecture 2,317 people died as a result of it, mostly because of disruption to medical care or suicide. That is more than the 1,606 who perished during the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear meltdown themselves. Some researchers argue the government should not have ordered a large-scale evacuation at all, or should have limited it to weeks rather than years.
Against all that, though, two things must be remembered. One is that well-regulated nuclear power is safe. With the terrible Soviet-era exception of Chernobyl, nuclear disasters come without large death tolls. It was the tsunami, not radiation, that claimed nearly all those lives in Fukushima. The other is that the earth’s climate is in crisis, and nuclear plants can supply some of the vast amounts of emissions-free electricity the world needs if it is to cope. Solar and wind power are now much cheaper, but they are intermittent. Providing a reliable grid is a lot easier if some of its generating capacity can be assumed to be available all the time. Nuclear provides such capacity with no ongoing emissions, and it is doing so safely and at scale around the world.
Here in British Columbia, we pride ourselves on our ability to create a lot of Hydro Power without having to burn coal or oil, even so we are a big coal exporter, most of it metallurgical, for markets in Asia. In 2016, coal was B.C.’s number one export commodity.
Hydro power has its own drawbacks and environmental consequences. In order to hold back billions of litres of water with massive dams, large tracts of land, mostly fertile river valleys, need to be flooded. The latest Hydro mega project is the Site C dam on the Peace River near St. John in northeastern B.C. The project is newly costed at $ 16 billion, which is twice the original budget estimate from 2014 and by now means the last. Let’s say it will cost $ 20 billion when it’s all said and done. The dam will flood 80 km of forests, farms and over 7’000 acres of agriculture land and produce 5’100 GWh annually. It’s a gigantic investment for an uncertain future. Despite growing populations, power consumption has not been increasing. Maybe everyone changing to LEDs from tungsten filaments has something to do with that. As it stands now, the cost can never be recovered by sales mostly to the US, unless the price of electricity quadruples in the next ten years.
On the upside, with reference to the Paris climate accord, Site C is predicted to prevent approx. 30 to 70 million tonnes of carbon dioxide from being generated in the atmosphere.
Altogether Site C is a massive boondoggle, not just a financial one but an environmental one as well. A full report on the status of the impact of a serious fault under the riverbank was released in February 2021. It was made clear by Peter Milburn, the trouble shooter, that the river bank isn’t the only place where there are tension cracks. According to Milburn the geotechnical issues always existed but BC Hydro chose to ignore them. The current NDP government blames the former Liberal government who pushed the project past the point of no return. That’s politics getting in the way of common sense, once again and the people, us, will pay for it dearly for generations to come.
This brings me back to the beginning of this essay. The world needs power and with the unleashing of millions of e-cars, e-bikes and the combined demand of newly popular e-platforms, thanks to covid-19, and the increased demand of emerging economies we will have to generate, transmit and store more energy, speak electricity. Nuclear power should be given a new chance since it is virtually emission free and once built, able to produce reliable, non-intermittent power for decades.